What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
I trained and worked as an electrician for six years before deciding to go to college. I wasn’t particularly interested in being an electrician – it was just something I fell into. In hindsight, working in the real world after leaving school was a great experience and helped me focus my mind on what I would really like to do (or at least on what I didn’t want to do).
For me my job was never about money. Who ever heard of a rich marine biologist? During my time as an electrician I found that I was generally dissatisfied (don’t get me wrong, being an electrician is a great job – it just didn’t float my boat). You work five days a week for most of the year, so your job is largely your life and it makes sense that if you are not happy in work then it’s hard to be happy outside of it. So for me it was important that I found something that inspired and challenged me.
I guess I’m a bit of a stargazer who always asked questions about the world. Now that I’m a marine biologist I’m very happy and get to ask questions every day. I could always do with more money but hey, I get to go out in boats mTom DDost weeks doing stuff that most other people pay a fortune for, so maybe it all balances out in the end. On the down side there aren’t many opportunities for me to progress as there is no career path. We just make it up as we go along. Hopefully one day there will be permanent research positions in the universities.
How did you go about getting your current job?
I’m a postdoctoral researcher which means that I have a licence to do research as long as you can convince a funding body that what you want to do is worth funding. So essentially you spend a lot of time writing proposals for work that you would like to do. The job I do now is a job that I wrote the proposal for and won. It’s very competitive but proposal writing is a skill that you learn and hopefully get better at. On the up side, you get to write your own job spec!
Describe a typical day
Honestly, there is no typical day. Some days can be spent working on the water doing research from our small boat (the best days), the odd time out on a research vessel in the Celtic or Irish Seas (for a few weeks), some days in the laboratory analysing samples, and other days attending workshops/conferences and giving presentations. I rarely do any scuba diving, which probably shatters the image of a marine biologist.
Like most researchers I spend a large amount of my time in front of a computer screen analysing data, writing manuscripts (an important job for scientists is to publish their research, we do so by writing manuscripts and hopefully they get published in journals), reading about the latest research, emailing, communicating with the media or doing administrative work. An important task I try to make time for is “quiet time” (like my eldest son in his crèche).
Essentially this boils down to some time away from computers and other distractions to think about your research. You need to give your brain a chance to work. I also spend a great deal of my time on the phone chatting to fishermen, members of the general public, the media and other scientists. I like to talk but it’s also important to communicate what you are doing to the world (whether scientists or the general public). Lastly, I am constantly trying to find more money for my research.
What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
My main responsibility is to conduct marine research and to address the various questions asked of me by my funding bodies. For example, one project I work on requires that we determine the abundance of jellyfish in the Irish Sea and assess whether they are increasing or not as a result of climate change and/or overfishing.
For another project I am trying to identify what types of jellyfish impact negatively on salmon aquaculture. I don’t do these jobs in isolation but work as part of an international collaborative team of researchers.
The best thing about my job is tagging marine animals and seeing where they go. Handling giant sea turtles and venomous jellyfish is pretty cool!
What is your education to date?
Electrical apprenticeship (four years) Certificate in Science – Biology in Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (two years) Degree in Zoology at NUI Galway (three years) Then after some travel abroad I did a PhD in Zoology at UCC (three years)
What aspects of your education have been most important for your job?
Having a good knowledge in biology and other science subjects is important. Mathematics is also very helpful. However, I would stress that the most important qualification for my job is enthusiasm. Only those who are really interested in marine biology succeed, as there is a lot of competition for jobs or funding.
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
Satellite tagging two leatherback sea turtles off the west coast of Ireland. Most people said it couldn’t be done and that I would probably never see one. So to tag two leatherbacks off Dingle and then to be able to follow their movements (via satellites) around the Atlantic Ocean for more than a year was very exciting. It was the first time that leatherbacks had been satellite-tagged in European waters and only the second place in the world where they were tagged at their foraging (feeding) grounds. But like a lot of what I do it was only made possible by close collaboration with communities and local fishermen. It was only with help and friendship of Pádraig Frank O’Súilleabháin (salmon fisherman) that we managed to tags these turtles.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Follow what interests you most. This seems like stating the obvious, but many people choose a subject based on career opportunities (i.e. will there be jobs in this area?). If you follow a subject that you truly enjoy then you will become one of the best at it and then a job will find you.
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